MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
This weekend New Orleans voters will go to the poles to elect the man responsible for rebuilding the battered city. Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin faces off against Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, the son of Moon Landrieu, the larger than life mayor who ran New Orleans through much of the 1970s.
Hurricane Katrina stirred up politics in the city, scattering residents far and wide, creating new feuds and new alliances. The white business leaders who helped sweep Nagin to power last time were offended by the mayor's remarks about New Orleans needing to remain a chocolate city.
And though the Landrieus have long counted on support from black voters, many black voters are leery of booting a black leader to elect the first white mayor in a generation.
Lolis Eric Elie is a columnist for the Times Picayune. The editorial page for that paper, which operates separately from the newsroom, endorsed candidate Mitch Landrieu this week. Lolis Eric Elie has been out talking to voters and he's been watching the candidate closely. He joins us now.
So good to talk to you.
Mr. LOLIS ERIC ELIE, (New Orleans Times Picayune): My pleasure.
NORRIS: How are the candidates running their campaigns, Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu?
Mr. ELIE: Mitch Landrieu has been able to raise a lot of money. So you see a lot of Mitch Landrieu adds on television, you hear them on the radio, and you also see the street signs. Ray Nagin had raised a large war chest before the hurricane, has been raising money since the primary election, but cannot compete with Landrieu based on money. But he has a lot of signs saying, re-elect our mayor, Ray Nagin. Bring us back together, our mayor, Ray Nagin.
A big part of what Landrieu has been attempting to do is show that he has support of both black folks and white folks. And a big part of what Nagin wants to do is tone down any direct references to race and remind folks that he was viewed as a conciliatory force prior to the storm.
NORRIS: Landrieu carries that family name. He comes from a dynastic Democratic family there in Louisiana. Will that name carry a certain amount of magic? Is it a benefit or in some ways a curse?
Mr. ELIE: Well, Mayor Nagin is trying to make it a curse by arguing that having a Landrieu as mayor, another one as U.S. senator, another one on the school board, another one's a judge, we end up with one political family running everything. The other thing that happens though is that the Landrieu name has certainly helped Mitch Landrieu among black voters, many of whom still remember what his father did and are thankful for that.
NORRIS: You've got an odd situation here. You've got a black mayor in the city that if you actually would rewind and go back three, four years ago, he was a black mayor who actually didn't have strong support in the black community in that first election. This year that's changed. What role does race play in this upcoming election?
Mr. ELIE: Well, on one hand I think people underestimate Ray Nagin's support in the black community four years ago. I think he did have significant black support, though not as much black support as his opponent.
In terms of how some black people view the current race, after all the decades of attempting to get control of City Hall or to put a black man in City Hall, people are reluctant to turn their back on that. They don't want to see another white mayor after so many years that it took to get a black mayor in.
On the other hand, you have white voters, conservative white voters in many instances, who are supporting Nagin, both because of his pro-business policies and also because they find the Landrieus too liberal.
NORRIS: What are the potential problems and challenges with the elections on Saturday with half the city's population living elsewhere in the state and in many cases in other states?
Mr. ELIE: Well, part of it is getting people to mail in absentee ballots, which is no easy thing to do. You have to have access to a fax machine and in some instances, if you're going to be late in getting it back, you need to have access to some overnight mail, which is expensive.
I think in many ways what the Secretary of State has done is imagine the typical middle-class voter with access to all sorts of information on the internet or with access to a fax machine, when in a whole lot of instances, average people, average New Orleanians, don't have this kind of access or this kind of sophistication. And I think, to a great extent, they are being disenfranchised.
NORRIS: The voters that live outside of the city, if you look at sort of their socioeconomic makeup, which camp do they tend to fall in? Would they tend to fall in the Landrieu or the Nagin camp?
Mr. ELIE: That's a big question that I can't exactly answer. First of all, we have to define who those people are. And the, mind you, there're fair amount of professionals whose companies have been able to uproot. But in addition to that, we have a fair amount of the poorest and most desperate New Orleanians, who also have been forced to live far away.
And in terms of defining what camp they would fall into, that is as difficult as trying to look at the race of the voters and figure out who they're going to vote for. This is a race that is unpredictable in ways that are unprecedented in New Orleans and rare in the rest of the United States.
I mean, normally you worry about who's actually going to show up to the polls. You worry about whether or not your advertising has reached its mark. That sort of thing. But I think voters are asking themselves some very complicated issues and even when I talk to people, you get the sense that a fair amount of people are walking into the polls undecided and can go either way.
NORRIS: Lolis, it's been good talking to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. ELIE: My pleasure.
NORRIS: Lolis Eric Elie is a columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune. You can find information on the election in New Orleans, including information about absentee voting, at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.